A Night of Triumph; The firestorm surrounding Safari West

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Peter and Nancy Lang, founders and owners of Safari West .

Two years ago, on the night of October 8, 2017, I was in my apartment in New York City. Unable to sleep at two in the morning, I glanced at my phone and saw a news flash. In Santa Rosa, California electrical transformers and propane tanks were exploding. I turned on the television. There it was: the worst fire in California’s history was destroying drought-ridden Northern California.

The fire started on Tubbs Lane near Calistoga, incinerating everything in its path. Fueled by fierce westerly winds, it would consume both sides of Mark West Springs Road and beyond.  The Safari West Wildlife Preserve is at the center of Mark West Springs Road, tucked in a sheltered valley. Its 400 acres are home to 1,000 animals — or, as Peter Lang, the owner and founder of Safari West, would say, “1,000 souls.”

Sheriffs arrived at the property at 10:30 p.m. to evacuate the 90 guests staying in the African safari tents. Brian Jellison, Safari West’s manager, immediately drove a mile to the Lang’s ranch. Peter’s wife Nancy woke her husband. Peter said, “Give me ten minutes.” Nancy said, “You don’t have ten minutes.” 

Nancy herded their four dogs into her car. Peter grabbed a hoodie and jumped into his truck. Brian followed as they drove through a wall of flames. The oak trees were on fire. Everything was on fire. The Sonoma night sky was lit up.

Peter Lang near the hyena enclosure fighting the fire at Safari West in the middle of the night.

At Safari West, the sheriffs delivered an unequivocal order: everyone was to leave. Ninety Safari West guests immediately complied. Nancy drove down Mark West Springs Road, assuming Peter was in his truck behind her.

But it wasn’t in Peter’s nature to leave.  He had put those animals there; he felt it was his responsibility to stay. And for the next ten hours, alone at Safari West, 76-year-old Peter Lang worked to save 1,000 animals.

Hauling fire hose.

He began by connecting garden hose after garden hose to reach fire spots. He drove a forklift to haul flammables away. He climbed an eight-foot fence to encourage a herd of Nyala antelope to jump over flames; when one leaped, all the others followed. The fire that had trapped the animals was now motivating him to climb back over that fence.

Fighting small bush fires.
Water trucks and staff headed for a fire spot.
Burned truck — still works.

At one point, the hyena and cheetah enclosures were in flames — and because the hyena enclosure had tall grass around it to give the hyenas privacy, the fire had a fresh fuel source.  Peter drenched one spot fire after another. Every few minutes his hoodie would be bone dry, and he would have to turn his hose on it.

Cheetah safe in her scorched enclosure.

The heat was unbearable. By 2 a.m. near hurricane-level winds were whipping through the trees. Peter had one ally: his animals. Having grazed the land, they had created a natural fire-break. Peter watched animals watching him fight the fire.

As dawn was breaking, the aggressive firestorm shifted its intensity, and Nancy and the staff started returning to Safari West. With the staff now fighting the flames….Peter drove to his home. Nothing was left. Four homes and two barns. Gone.

Staff securing fences.
Safari West fire truck patrolling the grounds.

Peter and Nancy drove us up to see the devastation on their own home ranch just a mile away from Safari West. All the watusi and brahman cattle on the ranch survived the fire by huddling near the pond. At the end of this video you can see the scorched hills in the background. And yes I talk to animals …

And yet it was a night of triumph. Not one animal was harmed, not one bird perished. Peter had saved Safari West.

The fires burned 36,810 acres and destroyed more than 9,000 structures in Napa and Sonoma counties. Twenty-three people died. The monetary cost was at least $1.3 billion dollars. The most likely cause:  a failed PG&E transformer connected to a private line. Sparks from the failed system fell to the dry grass, and then the winds began.

For sleepless days and nights they fought the fire.

At the gate into Nancy and Peter’s home ranch stood a metal lion. The heat of the fire that Nancy, Peter and Brian drove through melted this lion sculpture.
While Peter saved Safari West his own home ranch burned to the ground. This was all that remained.

In the last two years Safari West and its dedicated staff have seen the birth of 147 mammals and 285 hatchings. And like so many in Northern California, Peter and Nancy are rebuilding their home.

Ostriches and a giraffe in the morning light.
Curious hoof stock.
Look at those cheetah eyes! The distinctive tear streaks on a cheetah are said to keep the glare down when they are looking out over the savannah for hunting opportunities. The cheetah’s closest relatives are the cougar. Cheetah’s are mainly active during the day. A long, flattened tail acts as a rudder, enabling the cheetah to change direction quickly while chasing its prey. Semi-retractable claws act as cleats and add traction when running.

A cheetah’s underbelly is completely white. Reduced canines allow for a larger nasal opening to increase the volume of air that the cheetah can bring in with each breath. Cheetah’s cannot roar but they purr just like house cats. I asked a cheetah caretaker to take a video of this purring cheetah.

Kudu is an antelope. They are good jumpers and can clear a 5-foot fence from a standing start.
In addition to superb eyesight and hearing, zebras also have acute senses of smell and taste. Unlike their closest relatives, horses and donkeys, zebras have never been domesticated.
One of two zebra foals born in 2019. A group of zebra is called a dazzle.
Servals are slender, skilled hunters. They have tan coats with spots and stripes that act as camouflage in dry grass. Having the longest leg-to-body ratio of any cat gives the serval a vantage point over small prey in the tall grass. Their large, oval ears are the largest in the cat family and allow them to hear prey beneath the ground or in dense grass.
A giraffe mom and calf in the giraffe barn getting ready to go outside for the day. Giraffe calves are about 6’ tall at birth and are able to walk within an hour.
Giraffes and people all have the same 9 vertebrae in their necks but giraffes vertebrae are about a foot long whereas humans are about an inch long. Giraffes have excellent vision. Their keen eyesight lets them scan for predators. Giraffes can live up to 38 years. Because of their size, eyesight and powerful kicks, adult giraffes are usually not subject to predation. Giraffe groups tend to be sex-segregated.
Patas monkey mom introduces her new baby to the Safari West family.
Ring Tailed Lemur enjoying the sun. All 101 species and subspecies live in Madagascar.
The Striped Hyena is the smallest of the hyena. They are a monogamous animal with both males and females assisting in raising their young.
This is a pair of Southern White Rhinos. They are one of the largest and heaviest land animals in the world. These gentle giants weigh 4,000 – 6,000 pounds. They can reach speeds of 30 mph.
Several years ago my daughter was married at Safari West.
Cape Buffalo are considered to be one of the deadliest mammals in Africa.
American Flamingos sitting on their mud nests. Each couple will incubate and hatch one chick each season.
A flamboyance of flamingos tending the nursery full of chicks. These chicks will grow quickly and reach their adult size in only 2.5 months though they won’t have their full adult color until they are 2 years old.

Southern Ground Hornbill with a successful catch.
The fennec fox is the smallest of all the natural canids with a thick and silky tan coat. Their feet are heavily furred, protecting the soft pads from the hot desert sand. Their large ears help to keep them cool while also providing them excellent hearing. This helps them hear prey moving underground while they reside in carefully crafted burrows.
Red River Hogs also known as the “bushpig” live in the rainforests near rivers, lakes and marshes of Central Africa. They have a thin dorsal mane of white fur and long black tassels of hair that hang from their leaf shaped ears.
The crested porcupines are much larger than those of North America and unlike our North American species, their quills are not barbed. These cuties love belly rubs and peanuts.
Two kudu babies. Safari West uses their distinctive striping patterns to tell individuals apart.
The warthog is a wild member of the pig family.
Safari West is very excited to be raising their first Secretary Bird chick. A very large bird with an eagle-like body on crane-like legs.
A walk through the aviary offers a great adventure. In the center of this photo is the White Stork.
Firefighters visiting Safari West after the Tubbs fire.
Safari West tents are imported from Botswana, each of their thirty tents sports a private viewing deck, en-suite bathroom, polished hardwood floors, and because it’s glam-camping, all the wildlife sounds of the Sonoma Serengeti!
Luxurious tents. Glamping.
Many of the tents have a view of Catfish Lake.
Dining on the Sonoma Serengeti.
Safari West founder Peter Lang received the 2018 American Red Cross Animal Rescue Hero Award.

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